The Devil’s in the (future) Detail: The Supreme Court’s Internet shut-down Judgment

Previously on this blog, we have discussed in some detail the litigation challenging the five-month-long internet shut-down in the Kashmir Valley. Today, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in the challenge. While there was no effective relief in the judgment – the Court did not order a restoration of internet services in the valley, as it did not return a finding on the issue (see below) – it nonetheless reiterated certain important constitutional principles. While it is unfortunate, therefore, that the longest internet shut-down in a democratic country continues (at least for the foreseeable future), in this post, I will set out what the judgment actually did do, and how it provides a platform for future challenges to internet shut-downs as well as to the imposition of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

What the State Lost 

To understand the judgment, it is important to understand two bizarre claims advanced by the State at various points of the hearing. The State (i) refused to produce the orders that it had passed under Section 144 CrPC and the 2017 Telecom Suspension Rules, and which were the legal bases of the fundamental rights restrictions in the Valley; (ii) cited terrorism in Kashmir to argue that it was exempted from following the proportionality standard while restricting fundamental rights, and that, in the interests of national security, the Court ought not to intervene.

In essence, therefore, what the State – and its lawyers – were asking for was a complete carte blanche with respect to the operations in Kashmir. If the orders restricting fundamental rights did not need to be produced, there was no effective way to challenge them; and if the Court could not intervene because “terrorism”, then there was no effective forum where to challenge them. In other words, the State – and its lawyers – asked the Court to effectively hold that Kashmir was in a state of permanent Emergency, where fundamental rights stood suspended and at the mercy of the State, even though there had been no declaration of an Emergency at any point. The dangers of such an argument are obvious; as I’ve argued before, what the State wanted was a permanent normalisation of the Emergency regime, where the invocation of “national security” would grant an automatic judicial immunity from justifying the constitutionality of fundamental rights restrictions.

On both counts, however, the State’s arguments were comprehensively rejected. On the first issue, the Court made it clear that the orders providing legal cover to the imposition of Section 144 CrPC and the internet shut-down had to be made public, so that citizens could know – and, if they chose – challenge the bases on which their fundamental rights were being restricted. If the State wanted to withhold any part of such orders because of national security concerns, it would have to justify that, on a case to case basis.

On the second count, the Supreme Court reiterated that, at all times, restrictions upon fundamental rights had to be consistent with the proportionality standard. In particular, as part of the proportionality standard, the State had to select the least intrusive measure to achieve its legitimate goals. As the Court noted in paragraph 70:

However, before settling on the aforesaid measure, the authorities must assess the existence of any alternative mechanism in furtherance of the aforesaid goal. The appropriateness of such a measure depends on its implication upon the fundamental rights and the necessity of such measure. It is undeniable from the aforesaid holding that only the least restrictive measure can be resorted to by the State, taking into consideration the facts and circumstances. Lastly, since the order has serious implications on the fundamental rights of the affected parties, the same should be supported by sufficient material and should be amenable to judicial review.

And as it went on to note in paragraph 71:

The degree of restriction and the scope of the same, both territorially and temporally, must stand in relation to what is actually necessary to combat an emergent situation.

 

Applying this standard to the specificity of internet shut-downs, the Court made four further observations. First, that the right to use the internet as a medium for free speech and expression and for trade and commerce, was protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution; secondly, that Article 19(2) allowed for the restriction of “abrasive statement(s) with imminent threat … if the same impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India…”; thirdly, that a perpetual internet shut-down would fail the test of proportionality; and fourthly, that the State’s argument that it couldn’t selectively block websites because of a lack of technology could not be accepted, as “[if] a contention is accepted, then the Government would have.”

Taking these four observations together, it is evident that the ongoing internet shut-down in Kashmir completely fails constitutional standards, as the government did not even attempt to justify it on grounds of proportionality, or that it was only targeting statements carrying an “imminent threat.” The Court went on to note that all of this required that when orders were being passed under the Telecom Suspension Rules to shut dow the internet, those orders would have to explicitly reflect how – in the specific case – the State action was proportionate.

While the reiteration of the proportionality standard in the context of internet shut-downs was a reinforcement of existing law, the Court also applied the same standard to Section 144 orders – which marks an incremental advance in the law. Up until now, the judgments governing the imposition of S. 144 were the old decisions of Babulal Parate and Madhu Limaye, whose language remained vague enough to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous State actors. Today the Supreme Court made it clear, however, that Section 144 orders would also have to abide by the proportionality standard (paragraph 126, and that that would have to be reflected in the text of the orders themselves. The Court also observed that in the normal course of things, S. 144 orders would have to be limited to particular areas or issues – thus casting severe doubt on the constitutionality of wide-ranging long-running 144 orders such as the one recently imposed in all of Bangalore, or the continuing order in Ahmedabad.

What the Petitioners Didn’t Win

Despite these findings, however, the Supreme Court did not rule on the validity of the internet shut-down or the imposition of S. 144 throughout the Valley. Its reason for that was somewhat curious: it held that because all of the internet shut-down orders had not been placed before it, it could not (yet) engage in judicial review. This is curious, because the onus of producing these orders undoubtedly lay on the State – indeed, the Court expressly directed it to do so in the operative part of its judgment. Furthermore, once the Court had held that the right to access information through the internet was protected by Article 19(1)(a), and that restrictions had to be proportionate, surely then the default situation was that the right would have to prevail over the restriction; in other words, until the government actually published the relevant orders with all the reasons (as required by the judgment), the internet ought to have been restored.

Instead, the Court directed that the Review Committee under the Telecom Suspension Rules would have to review the shut-down orders on a weekly basis, and that all the orders so far would have to be reviewed. Presumably, then, once this is done – and once the orders are published – a fresh challenge could be mounted on the basis of the principles laid out in this judgment (which, as I have indicated above, strongly suggest that the Kashmir shut-down is – and had always been – illegal).

Consequently, to the extent that the basis of the Court’s decision to not review the internet shut-down orders was that the State had not produced the orders in question (for five months), the consequence should have been that until the State – and its lawyers – decided to follow the law and the Constitution once again, fundamental rights could not continue to be restricted. That, however, seems like it will be a battle for another day. In the meantime, it is important to recall that in the wake of the CAA/NPR/NRC protests, the indiscriminate use of Section 144 and of internet shut-downs has been back in vogue, and there are now pending challenges in several High Courts. Today’s judgment sets out the principles on the bases of which these can be adjudicated: and the principles are that these orders restricting fundamental rights are subject to strong judicial review, that the State – and its lawyers – cannot get away by singing paeans to national security, that each order must be published, made public, and explicitly set out why the measure is proportionate, and that lastly, the Court shall – and must – examine whether least restrictive measures have been used, keeping in mind the importance of the internet to fundamental rights. These are sound procedural – and substantive bases – to move forward.


[Disclaimer: the author was one of the lawyers representing the petitioners.]

 

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